History of the Community Service Block Grant

The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (EOA) was the centerpiece of the "War on Poverty," which in turn was a major thrust of the "Great Society" legislative agenda of the Lyndon Johnson administration. The EOA provided for job training, adult education, and loans to small businesses to attack the roots of unemployment and poverty.

The EOA was passed August 20, 1964. EOA programs included:

  • VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America), a personal priority of LBJ
  • the Job Corps
  • the Neighborhood Youth Corps
  • Head Start
  • Adult Basic Education
  • Family Planning
  • Community Health Centers
  • Congregate Meal Preparation
  • Economic Development
  • Foster Grandparents
  • Legal Services
  • Neighborhood Centers
  • Summer Youth Programs
  • Senior Centers
  • and others.

The EOA established over a thousand Community Action Agencies (CAAs) at the local level, nationwide, to implement Great Society programs. CAAs varied greatly, with some being non-profit groups, some being city agencies, and some community-controlled groups. By 1968, there were more than 1,600 CAAs covering two-thirds of the nation's counties.

The EOA required the poor have "maximum feasible participation" in poverty program planning. CAAs sought participation by the poor by opening storefront and neighborhood centers. Such centers helped train a new generation of community activists and leaders. These individuals also were recruited into the ranks of federal poverty program administration.

As this new power base developed, some mayors and other political leaders were threatened and successfully lobbied Congress to earmark new funds into "National Emphasis Programs" specified by Congress. The NEP requirements effectively undermined the discretion of CAAs to allocate funds. As Congress's influence grew, the commitment of the president to the OEO declined.

Under the Nixon Administration, a number of OEO programs were transferred to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and to the Department of Labor. Later, after his 1972 reelection, Nixon's 1973 budget dropped funding for the Community Action Program of the OEO. Howard Phillips was appointed as OEO director with instructions to dismantle the agency. Court suits, however, forced the president to expend funds appropriated by Congress and Phillips resigned.

Under the Ford administration, the Community Services Amendments of 1974 terminated the OEO and created a replacement agency, the Community Services Administration (CSA). Many OEO employees simply changed places in organizational charts. CAA's continued to be funded until 1981.

New program thrusts included housing rehabilitation, home insulation, and environmental projects like solar greenhouses and community gardening.

Under the Carter administration there was a concerted effort to strengthen local leadership within the CSA and CAAs.

The Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) was passed in 1981, rescinding the Economic Opportunity Act as well as the Green Amendment. However, CAAs recognized by the CSA were made eligible for CSBG funding. Funding was reduced under the Reagan administration as a new system of eight block grants consolidated some 200 plus federal programs.

In September 1981, the CSA was abolished and 1,000 CSA employees were fired. Nonetheless, CAAs continued and in fact increased as a percentage of counties covered by CAAs (now estimated at 70%-80% of all U. S. counties). They remain important in domestic social policy to the present day.